The title story of Rick Bass’s 2006 six short story collection The Lives of Rocks is long, almost a novella, and tells the story of Jyl, a woman stricken with cancer. Someplace in Montana or Wyoming or similar, a single woman in a lone valley cabin must pump her own water and keep up a wood fire to heat her home, and drive herself to treatment and back, exhausted though she is. She thinks about her weakness and her father, and she also begins to think about the family that lives on the other side of the mountain, the Workmans.
It’s an evangelical Christian family, parents and five children, who work—yes, work—constantly. Their Protestant industriousness fascinates Jyl, especially the children’s. She begins to carve boats laden with messages for the children, sending them downriver toward the Workman property. She has no idea whether the children will get them.
Bass explicitly relates the conversation Jyl starts with the children to the one she has with her father, right from the beginning. The boats are from “a game she had played as a child, often while waiting for her father to come back from the wilderness.”
She had constructed paper boats and then sent them downstream in the little mountain creeks, running along beside them, following them for as long as she could, hurdling logs and boulders, pretending that the toy boats were ships bound for sea, ships on which she should have been a passenger—voyages for which she had a ticket, but with the ship having embarked without her.
Now, the children represent another voyage on which Jyl had a ticket but failed to embark: maternity. And unlike when she was a child, this time the ships do go somewhere, and two of the children show up at Jyl’s cabin, hoping for more messages to put in their scrapbook.
Jyl is clumsy dealing with the children, a 14-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl, but the three soon warm to each other, and Jyl begins passing on the family lore to them, as if they are her descendants. She teaches them about her father and his work, and bequeaths gifts to them passed down from him. This is something her own father did not do with her, apparently—asked whether her rifle belonged to her father or grandfather, she admits that it was her father’s, but “I don’t know where it came from before that—if it was his father’s or not.” And the young boy “looked up at Jyl as if this were the first thing she had said that had surprised him”—him of the large and clearly integrated family.
Despite her illness, Jyl wants to take a deer this season, and goes out with her rifle a few times to attempt it. The deer elude her, but soon after the children assure her that she doesn’t smell like illness, she sees an old buck in his full majesty, beholds him, and lets him leave, satisfied. Her treatment is over, and Thanksgiving with the children is a dramatic climax. But Jyl has still not communed with her father.
The emotional power of “The Lives of Rocks” lies in the way the events of the story unfold, constantly bouncing Jyl’s mood from high to low. Each time the children come, life comes with them, but the longer they are away, the more Jyl is left to brood on her father and what it will be to meet him in death. And when Jyl chooses life, late in the story, a happy ending is almost in sight. But the happiest endings in these stories are simply not-unhappy, and this one falls more at the other end of the spectrum.
The stories run from bleak to almost-optimistic, with clean and simple joys mixed into a hard life, at varying ratios. I like Bass’s minimal, unobtrusive style and his dark humor. I have been reading a certain type of very American-seeming, West-oriented short story lately (more than usual, that is), and this collection is an excellent example of the type. While the title story was the most substantial, I liked even more some of the shorter ones about children, as well as “The Canoeists” and “The Windy Day,” both about couples.